March 1, 2013
If you took my advice from my last column and are thinking of attending a workshop or
writersconference this year, I donʹt want you blindsided by a subtlety of craft that trips us all up from time to time — point of view.
Editors are very attuned to this sort of thing, but it ʹs one of the most common errors, even
for experienced writers. So today I ʹm offering a few words on point of view.
What is point of view?
It ʹs the perspective of the narrator of your story. It helps give rise to the emotion oftenmissing in straight expository writing. Legal writing, which is expository in nature, infuses passion or creates sympathy by theuse of strong verbs and inherently sympathetic situations — but at a reportorial distance, not from within the point‐of‐view plaintiff or character.
Seeing things as the character sees them evokes the readerʹs sympathy, even for unlikable characters. Point of view reveals a characterʹs world view and gives the character added dimension.
ʺI,ʺ or first person point of view, is easiest to identify; it limits the writer, however, to that which the ʺIʺ can see, hear, smell, feel or experience. ʺIʺ can only know what ʺIʺ observes first hand, what ʺIʺ thinks, and what is said to or within the hearing of ʺI.ʺ
ʺIʺ canʹt know what other people are thinking about, or what theyʹre thinking about ʺI,ʺ unless they tell ʺI.ʺ You should note, too, thatʺIʺ characters donʹt always tell the truth and often are unreliablein their reporting of what actually is happening in the story.
Third‐person point of view is either distant or close‐in. Third‐person distant point of view is commonly referred to as omniscient — the narrator is in everyoneʹs head, knowʹs whateveryone is thinking, feeling, seeing and doing. That distance can sound old‐fashioned —indeed, it was popular a hundred years ago. But third‐person close‐in is more modern, and can create a more immediate bond between the reader and the point‐of‐view character. Experienced writers may write alternating chapters or long scenes from different points of view, but beginners are often encouraged to stick with one point‐of‐view character — usually the protagonist.
You will be using ʺheʺ and ʺsheʺ in third person, but you will only be able to convey events to the reader which heʺ or ʺsheʺ witnesses or has heard about. When testing a scene for point of view, lawyers might ask themselves, ʺHow does the itness know that?ʺ If they saw it or participated, great. If they heard about it, itʹs still dmissible, but the reader will need to either be told how they heard about it or shown them earning of it.
When using a third party s close‐in point of view, you will also need to use the vocabularyof that character, a vocabulary consistent with the time period, the setting, the characterʹs scioeconomic status, gender and personality.
Not being omniscient, you canʹt step away from your story and comment on your main characters — that s called authorial intrusion. It intrudes on the illusion that your reader isexperiencing the story as and from the point of view of the point of the close‐in character.
A good example is in how you treat setting. Your point of view character is rushed on agurney to the emergency room. Does he or she note in excruciating detail the faces of each prson in the waiting room? The art on the walls? The shade of nail polish the receptionist is using? The red‐headed nurse? The smells? The sounds?
As a writer, you canʹt stop the emergency to tell the reader everything about the room —you need to be in the point of view character’s head and tell us what that person notices. What they notice will tell us a lot about who they are and how they are feeling right then. That’sʹs point of view.
Many beginning writers like to write from the first-‐person point of view, but I have myself shied away from that. Especially to the extent a first novel is semi-‐autobiographical (roman à clef), it is likely to feature an ʺIʺ not unlike the author.
But weʹre writing fiction, and I think some distance from the ʺIʺ character encourages the writer to write fiction true to a created character, not a thinly disguised one. There is freedom in writing about Kathleen Hannigan, a Yale Law graduate in 1976 joining a large law firm in Chicago — and a much more interesting story, I think, than my own narrow experience of that same school or a particular law firm.